Case Study: Roma Agrawal
“I don’t think there are that many professions where you get that sense that you’ve made a thing that people are going to interact with. It’s extremely, extremely rewarding!”
Engineering: the practical side of physics and maths
When Roma was a child she loved making and breaking things, and wanted to be an astronaut. She grew up in India and studied physics and maths at school as these subjects are seen as very prestigious and could lead to many careers. That said, Roma remembers that nobody suggested she might consider a career in engineering. It was not until she was studying physics at Oxford University and got a summer job working at a physics laboratory that she realised engineering brings together mathematics and science with the practicality of making stuff: that is what she wanted to do!
“It’s intrinsic to humans to be engineers … to me every human-made object is engineered. Every time you pick a material or tool and change things in some way, that is engineering.”
Engineering an iconic building
Roma lived in the US from the age of 16 before moving to London. She says that living in different countries made her open minded about finding different ways of doing things in engineering.
In London, Roma spent six years as a structural engineer working on an iconic building, The Shard. She worked on the building’s foundations, a very complex task which required a lot of collaboration amongst different teams. They had to build the foundations in a very tight space and make sure they didn’t disrupt nearby buildings, or the London underground.
“If the foundations don’t work very well, you will get the Leaning Tower of Pisa!”
Being a structural engineer
Roma describes the role of a structural engineer as follows:
“Structural engineers ensure buildings and bridges stand up. We use maths and physics to think about all the forces that are attacking the structure: so gravity is pulling it downwards, wind is pushing it sideways and in some places, earthquakes are trying to rattle it. We convert all of these forces into numbers and we then think about what materials we want the structure to be built from. Often the foundation is concrete because it’s a very robust material.”
Thinking of the invisible and the power of sketching
Roma often finds herself thinking of the invisible side of structures, such as their foundations, wires, or even sewage systems. It blows her mind how complex it is to put a building together, let alone an entire functional city! She is fascinated by bricks (and likes to touch them) and she is surprised how we still rely on this old technology to build modern structures. If she had a superpower it would the ability to control concrete and swish it into any shape she wants. One piece of advice she has to offer:
“I often encourage young people who are considering engineering … build up some confidence in your sketching and drawing skills because it’s a great way to communicate.”
A published author
Roma is currently working as a writer and communicator and has published books for adults and children about engineering. She uses her good communication skills as an engineer and writer to make engineering more accessible to all. She says people often forget that engineering is for humans and it’s helped us advance as a civilisation. Her latest children’s book tells the stories behind awesome structures across the world.
Roma is featured in an episode of the Inventive Podcast: